Bucs have arrived; will they stay?
When they get around to refurbishing Tampa Stadium - assuming there is a team here to make such an act necessary - they should leave the southeast corner alone. Sunday, it finally looked the way it was supposed to look. Fans leaned over the railing, strained to get closer and shouted as the members of the Tampa Bay Bucs ran underneath. This time, however, the noise shaped into cheers instead of jeers. This time there were no binoculars hurled at the head of the coach.

There was instead something approaching adulation. The Bucs flipped their gloves and their sweatbands into the stands, and the fans scurried after them as if they were treasures. This time, the run to the locker room was not a gantlet; it was a line dance. This is what a winning streak will do for you. The Bucs have won three in a row (feel free to say: Wheee!), and if that doesn't strike you as much of a streak, consider that it is a dozen years in the making. Not since 1982 - and only four times in the history of the franchise - have the Bucs won three straight games.

And so the temptation was to watch the picture for a minute before the obvious question is asked. Why now?

What has occurred in the cosmos to add up to this? Where was this running game when the Bucs were camped most of the night on the Detroit 1-yard line? Where was this deep passing game when Chicago was ripe for the plucking? Where was this play-calling when the team needed 15 yards to kick a field goal that would have beaten New Orleans? Where was this defense when the season meant something?

Why now, when the team may be two games from holding a going-out-of-business sale? "I guess that's like asking why we didn't put a man on the moon sooner than we did," said Bucs coach Sam Wyche. "Or why we didn't invent penicillin before we did. It took a lot of work, a lot of experimentation, many laps and lifting weights. And suddenly you get there."

This is how amazing a three-game winning streak is by the Bucs. The coach compares it to walking on the moon and the invention of penicillin. Then again, maybe he was just being modest - maybe this is more unlikely. It is hard to know exactly what to make of this streak, let alone track its origins. Is it merely because the pressure is off and the late-season contract play is on? Perhaps, but remember that the past dozen years have been largely pressure-free contract drives too, and the team hasn't won three straight.

Does it promise next year's team will be better? Perhaps, but last year's Bucs finished strongly and it didn't translate into success early this year. All we know is this: The team, for whatever reason, is playing better. And it beats the past 12 years.

Perhaps the streak began with the arrival of Errict Rhett. Certainly, team and player took off together. Perhaps it began when the offensive and defensive lines grew tired of being bullied every time they went to the playground. Perhaps it was simply a matter of getting Chris Chandler on the other sideline. "We're playing as good as anyone in the league," said Hardy Nickerson. "The next step is 7-9."

The thing is, playing well after spending much of the season charting the course to 2-14 is a mixed blessing for the players involved. The better you play, the more the ones that got away haunt you. "It's almost like the more you win, the more frustrated you get," center Tony Mayberry said. "You think about the games we could have won if the offense had been just a little bit better."

True enough. Had the team opened with a three-game winning streak, what might have happened? Had the home games against Minnesota and Chicago ignited a winning streak, instead of a losing streak, would the playoffs be possible now? For those dancing in the end zone, the frustration of one getting away is a shared emotion. What if the Bucs are finally on the move just as they are, well, on the move? "We've arrived," Wyche said.

How long they stay remains to be seen.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 1994